Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870-1954) is at last being given his due as an important name in the history of photography in India. Until recently, his achievement has tended to be overshadowed by the emblematic presence of his daughter, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), one of the pioneering figures in the history of pictorial modernism in India. She was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris between 1930-34, and the inter-war renewal of realism left a mark on her work, as did the example of Gauguin. Her return to India was also a journey of discovery, notably of classical and medieval Indian art. The revelation proved to be decisive, for it reoriented the ambition of her painting. The pictures she painted in the late nineteen thirties suggest that she was poised to becoming a major artist, but that promise remain unfulfilled owing to her untimely death in 1941. She was 28 years old. Amrita Sher-Gil’s talent, her beauty, her flamboyant personality, her cosmopolitan outlook and her sexual emancipation have made her something of a legend. Her life and work was spent in trying to unsettle the frames imposed by her Indo-European extraction, her aristocratic/high bourgeois milieu, her gender. But her presence was framed in a more literal sense by the photographic lens. Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, was an amateur photographer of some genius whose principal subject was his family – his Hungarian wife, their two daughters, Amrita and Indira – and himself. Indeed, Umrao Singh is as fascinating a figure as Amrita. He was a nationalist (something that set him apart from the rest of his family who were British loyalists), an independent if reclusive scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, an inveterate tinkerer (he loved carpentry), a star gazer, an introvert, a dandy, and (as his letters to his daughter reveal) an abiding pessimist if not a melancholic. Those who knew him tended to describe him as an eccentric and somewhat Tolstoyan figure, an impression conveyed as much by his rather grave and stately appearance as by his professed affinities with the ideas of the Russian master. He took hundreds of photographs of his wife and daughters which constitute an extraordinary record of the lifeworld of an Indo-European family in the first half of the twentieth century. He was an amateur in the literal, that is, most affecting and noble sense of the word: amator – one who loves and loves again. He was also given to posing himself in front of the camera, sometimes as a preening ascetic, as in the splendid image that shows him standing upright in a loincloth, arms raised, a hermit or yogi in the orientalist décor of the apartment in the Rue Bassano in Paris, or as a handsome aristocrat casually reclining on a divan, but more usually as a man of letters surrounded by his tomes or sitting at his writing table, fingers poised at the keys of his Remington. His letters and his self-portraits reveal him as someone at once childlike and a sage: self-absorbed, fastidious, singular. The bricoleur in him coexisted with the orientalist savant and the enthusiast of modern gadgetry. He kept abreast of the latest photographic techniques, such as autochromes and stereoscopy, and, in India, was a pioneer in experimenting with them. His wonder in the ingenuity of the photographic apparatus went hand in hand with a delight in setting up a mise-en-scène for capturing his presence and that of his family: the photograph as a succession of tableaux intimes. In all this posing there was an element of self-mockery, too, as when he annotated some of the images with self-deprecatory remarks. The camera was an instrument of self-fashioning, although the residual sadness in his gaze came increasingly to the fore, especially after Amrita’s death and the suicide, a few years later, of his wife Marie Antoinette. The photographs make up a family album that is tinged with a sense of pathos. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Tolstoyan that he was, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil would have acknowledged the truth of this wisdom.